It’s estimated more than three million people in the UK and Ireland have osteoporosis and more than 500,000 people receive hospital treatment from osteoporosis related fragility factors every year, as Dr Annette Creedon, nutrition manager for the British Nutrition Foundation, points out.
The condition means bones become weaker, making them more prone to breakage. “Bone is a living, growing tissue, with old bone tissue continually being removed and replaced by new bone tissue,” explains Creedon. “This is a continuous process that happens throughout the lifecycle, but when you have osteoporosis, old bone tissue is removed faster than new bone can be produced.”
She says the higher the peak bone mass we can get in young adulthood, and the slower the loss of bone mass in later adulthood, the better. These things are partially determined by genetics but diet and lifestyle also play a part – and women are more at risk of osteoporosis than men, especially in the first few years after menopause or if menopause begins before your mid-40s, due to the role of estrogen
Christine Bailey, registered nutritionist and ambassador for bonebalance supplements, says the condition is often cited as a ‘silent disease’ because it can develop unnoticed for many years, only coming to light when a fracture occurs.
Here, experts talk us through some of the key, but perhaps less obvious, ways to help build bone density…
1. Eat a wide variety of foods
“Calcium is well known to be important for bones but there are other vitamins, minerals and nutrients vital to keeping bones healthy and strong, including vitamin K, potassium and magnesium,” notes Creedon.
“Eating a healthy, diet with a wide variety of foods from each food group is important for getting all the nutrients needed to build and maintain healthy bones throughout life.”
2. Measure your shadow
The body produces vitamin D via sun exposure, but how do you know if you’re getting enough?
If your shadow is shorter than your height, Creedon says your body can produce vitamin D from sunlight exposure. However, if your shadow is longer than your height, this means the sun is too low in the sky for you to be able to produce vitamin D – which in the UK and Ireland occurs during autumn and winter months.
“Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and is essential for controlling the amount of calcium and phosphorus in the body, to build and maintain healthy bones and muscles,” says Creedon. “As we age, a low vitamin D level can increase the risk of weak bones making them more prone to breaking – osteoporosis.”
We generally need 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day, which is why supplements are advised during the colder, darker months, to ensure we maintain healthy levels.
3. Consider collagen
Bailey cites collagen – which declines as we age – as the forgotten nutrient for bone health: “While in the past, the focus has been on calcium for building bone density, research is revealing a whole host of other nutrients are needed for healthy bones, including magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin K2, vitamin C and silica. Collagen is also important.
“Collagen is the body’s most abundant structural protein, which acts like glue to hold your body together,” she says. “It’s a building block for bones and makes up about 35% of your bone tissue. It provides a framework for your bones and, along with calcium and other nutrients, strengthens them.”
Collagen supplements are a relatively new – but booming – addition to the wellness landscape. If you are considering giving it a go, Bailey suggests being aware it comes in different forms, so it’s important to take one specifically suited to bone health.
“Research has shown a particular type of bioactive collagen peptides, bonebalance, starts to work in six days,” says Bailey. “Clinical trials on the ingredient show bone mineral density gains that compare favorably with prescription treatments for osteoporosis.”
4. Take-up tennis
Or any other weight-bearing exercise you enjoy, such as dancing, hiking or jogging, suggests Creedon.
“Resistance exercises, such as lifting weights or push-ups using your own body weight, help to build muscle strength, which also supports bone health as muscles pulling on your bones will increase bone strength,” Creedon explains.
As she points out, regular physical activity is important for building strong healthy bones when we’re younger, and for maintaining bone health when we’re older. It also helps improve balance and coordination, which can prevent falls.
If you have any underlying health condition or you have already been diagnosed with thinning bone, Creedon says you should speak with your GP or health specialist before undertaking any new form of exercise.
5. Daily walks
If strength training sounds too ambitious, or you’re worried about injuring yourself, it’s still vital to keep moving any way you can. “Putting our bones under relative stress helps to build bone,” says Sophie Chabloz, CPO and co-founder of Avea Life. “Making exercise part of your daily regime is therefore crucial in helping to build bone density. Light exercise, such as a daily walk, not only strengthens our bones but it’s easy to add into your everyday routine.”
In fact, Chabloz says studies have shown that women who walk approximately one mile each day have higher whole-body bone density than women who walk shorter distances.
6. Avoid low-calorie diets
“A low calorie diet often leads to weak bones, as there’s little opportunity to obtain the adequate nutrients required to maintain bone health,” warns Chabloz. “Your diet should include a healthy balance of fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals, in order to help build bone density.”
7. Avoid canned, fizzy drinks
Chances are you’re not always checking the ingredients in your favorite fizzy drink, but it might be worth reading the small print. Phosphoric acid is a common additive in processed food and soft drinks, but too much of it can effect bone health.
“High intakes [of phosphoric acid] can increase loss of calcium from your bones,” warns Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan. “This can upset the balance of calcium and phosphorus, which can result in calcium leaching from bones, potentially impacting on bone density.
“Studies have shown the impact of high intakes of cola is greater in women than in men,” Brewer notes. “Findings from a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that [cola] intake was associated with significantly lower bone mineral density at each hip site measured.”